President Donald Trump touched a nerve with former White House officials after saying today that previous presidents did not make phone calls to the families of fallen service members.
Trump was responding to a question about why he has not yet made remarks about the four special operations servicemen killed in Niger almost two weeks ago. Trump, speaking from the Rose Garden in a surprise press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he plans on contacting the families soon.
“If you look at President [Barack] Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I am able to do it,” said Trump. “They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass. I’m going to be calling them.”
Trump later walked back the comments accusing his predecessors of not calling families of people killed in combat. “I don’t know if he did. No, no, no,” said Trump. “I was — I was told that he didn’t often, and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters.”
But former White House administration officials were riled by the accusation.
“President Trump’s claim is unequivocally wrong,” a former Obama official said in a statement to ABC News. “President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to Section 60 at Arlington, visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star Families at the White House and across the country.”
“President Bush wrote all the families of the fallen, and called and/or met privately with hundreds if not thousands,” a spokesperson to former President George W. Bush told ABC News.
An aide to President Bill Clinton also called the claim false. “He did call the families of fallen soldiers while in office,” the official told ABC News.
Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House deputy chief of staff and a longtime scheduler for Obama, told ABC News, “It is unconscionable that a president would dare to ever portray another as unpatriotic, which is essentially what he was doing.”
Other Obama officials took to Twitter to respond, including former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes:
“This is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards. Also: Obama never attacked a Gold Star family,” Rhodes wrote, referring to Trump’s feud with the Khans, the parents of deceased U.S. Army officer Capt. Humayun Khan.
Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee deputy press secretary Brian Gabriel said in a statement, “The commander-in-chief told a totally irresponsible and disgusting lie in the Rose Garden today, claiming past presidents did not call the families of fallen service members. Trump’s jaw-dropping, disrespectful lie is not based anywhere in reality and is another symptom of a deep-seated obsession with tearing down President Obama.”
ABC News reached out for comment from the spokespeople for former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders later said in a statement, “The president wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact.”
“When American heroes make the ultimate sacrifice, presidents pay their respects,” she said. “Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person. This president, like his predecessors, has done each of these. Individuals claiming former presidents, such as their bosses, called each family of the fallen, are mistaken.”
ABC News’ Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.